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The Memorable Engagement

The Memorable Engagement of Capt. Pearson of the Serapis, December 12, 1780. Daniel Lepinière & James Fittler; John Boydell; Richard Paton, London, England. Special Acquisitions Fund, 78.74.12.

In this 1780 print in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, engravers Daniel Lepinière (ca. 1740–1785) and James Fittler (1758–1835) portrayed an American victory during the Revolutionary War, based on a work by painter Richard Paton (1717–1791). The print presents a moonlit ocean scene off the coast of England, with multiple warships entangled in fiery conflict. Published just over a year after the depicted conflict occurred, this engraving illustrates the Battle of Flamborough Head in vivid detail. The inscription on the bottom edge of the print conveys the English perspective on this historic event.

The two ships at the left of the engraving are the American Bonhomme Richard, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones (1747-1792), and the English Serapis, commanded by Captain Richard Pearson (1731–1806). Jones’ 1776 and 1777 privateering successes along the British coast combined with the 1778 Franco-American Alliance led to Jones’ appointment as captain of the French vessel Duc de Duras in 1779. Jones renamed the ship the Bonhomme Richard to show his respect for Benjamin Franklin, whose Maxims of Poor Richard was wildly popular in Paris at the time.

In August 1779, Jones and the crew of the Bonhomme Richard left Lorient, France, and headed towards England intending to harass English warships and to capture them as prizes if possible. As his squadron, consisting of the flagship and six other vessels, neared the English coast, local citizens prepared for the arrival of the man they considered a swashbuckling pirate. The Northumberland militia was called out and the whole coastline was alarmed.

By fall, Jones’ squadron was off the coast of Yorkshire. On September 23, 1779, battle was engaged between Jones’ group and a forty-one-ship squadron of English warships known as the Baltic fleet, led by the Serapis. Off Flamborough Head, a peninsula near Scarborough, the vastly-outnumbered Americans struck first. As it was a clear night, thousands of onlookers observed the battle from the shore. The majority of the Baltic fleet intentionally steered clear of the conflict, but the Countess of Scarborough was taken as a prize by the American ship Pallas. Eventually, the most bitter and drawn-out fight was between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, the two flagships.

Jones maneuvered his vessel alongside the Serapis and lashed the ships together, rendering their larger guns useless and forcing close combat using smaller arms. When Captain Pearson asked Captain Jones to surrender, the latter uttered his famous retort, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Despite his bravado, Jones later stated that “the scene was dreadful beyond the range of language.”

After more than three hours of vicious fighting, Captain Pearson eventually yielded, striking his flag and sending his sword to Captain Jones. With the Bonhomme Richard sinking beneath them, Jones and his crew boarded Serapis and took her as a prize. On December 27, Jones gave the Serapis to the French Navy as a prize ship. The naval victory was a boost to American morale and a victory for the Franco-American Alliance.

For the British public, the loss was significant. Jones and his squadron had again brought the war to their doorstep. The dedication at the bottom of the print, from painter Richard Paton, may have been an attempt to downplay the American victory: “To Sir Richard Pearson, whose bravery & conduct saved the Baltic Fleet under his Convoy though obliged to submit to a much superior force . . .” While the chaos of combat helped the other ships in the Baltic fleet escape, the loss of many sailors and two large warships was hardly anything to celebrate.

Despite the defeat, Pearson was hailed as a hero in England and received a knighthood. The Scottish-born Jones continued to be reviled in England and celebrated in the American colonies.


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